There are two ways to take an English vacation. One is to book a flight and traipse around the Sceptered Isle, and the other is to sit back in your favorite chair with a copy of this extraordinary book, written by Charles Moore, currently a columnist and a former editor of several British newspapers (The Spectator, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Daily Telegraph, colloquially referred to by some as the Torygraph). While some reviewers have described it as an in- house Establishment toast, it is far more than that, although clearly it is no roast. In 900-plus pages (which include close to 200 pages of endnotes), Moore has written three books in one and each is a worthwhile read.
One is a social history of a striving, middle-class small-town family on the eve of the Second World War something that could be a BBC miniseries if only there were sufficient evidence of humor and love in the family. But young Margaret and her older sister, Muriel, live a pinched and drab existence in the household of a successful local grocer and alderman. We see Margaret study her way out of her barren life to achieve academic success, winning a scholarship to major in chemistry at Oxford. She pursues her interests with great passion: clothes (about which we learn much more than we might wish), conservative campus politics, and young men but not chemistry, alas, at which she is at best a solid student. Once done with her Oxford degree (she manages to stay out of the war) she drifts in and out of several jobs, but her political talents, especially public speaking, are impressive. She reads law at the Inns of Court in London, begins her practice (American lawyers will be especially interested in how one started a legal career in the U.K. in those days), and runs several times as a Conservative candidate for the House of Commons, eventually carrying the day. She also marries Denis Thatcher, but not before arranging for another suitor to transfer his affections to her older sister an early manifestation of the Cabinet- reshuffling talents required of British leaders.
The second book could be titled "Mrs. Thatcher Goes to Westminster," as the narrative shifts to a familiar type of British political biography. Thatcher moves up the greased pole, becoming a junior member of the Shadow Cabinet (in opposition to the Labour Government of Harold Wilson), then leader of the Conservative Party in the Commons, and finally prime minister. This story is all about relationships, alliances, and political marriages and divorces. Moore provides his American readership with a scorecard, so we have some idea of the players, and offers illuminating character sketches of the leading Tories (but does much less on the Labour side), so that the clash of personalities comes alive in these pages. He provides not only the immediate political context but also the larger battle of ideas within the Conservative ranks. Thatcher is distinguished early on by her clear exposition of principles: at one point early in her career in the Commons she remarks, "I loathe this modern tendency to try to find a form of words that takes the meaning out of anything that you might say." The persona she develops in these pages corresponds to the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the American GOP: she is a true believer, not only in free market economics and its superiority to governmental solutions but also (and perhaps more important) in the "British character" and behind that, of course, in the English. Moore explains what the strength of these beliefs meant in the course of each policy issue that Thatcher faced, whether it involved decolonization in Rhodesia (she was skeptical), education reform (she was unconvinced that selective grammar schools should be replaced by non-selective "comprehensive" schools), and fiscal and monetary issues (she hewed closely to the maxims of Milton Friedman, among others). Moore is very clear that Thatcher was conservative, but in his telling she was a politician rather than an ideologue, adept at providing balance within her party both as leader of the opposition and prime minister. Only in the Cabinet's economic portfolios did she insist on true believers. Otherwise, for the junior ministerial positions, she was interested in talent more than ideology.
Moore explores every facet of Thatcher's thinking about merit: she was, for example, quite negative about pressures from Jews in her constituency (Finchley); yet many of her most respected advisers and colleagues were Jewish, and Thatcher's relationships with them, especially her very close work with Keith Joseph, are woven throughout the numerous policy studies that form the heart of the book. There is also and this will interest students of comparative politics a very detailed and incisive analysis of how the British government actually functions at the top, focusing on relations between Thatcher and the civil servants in Whitehall. Thatcher was not interested in processes or management; however, Moore observes, "She used every remark, every memo, every meeting as an opportunity to challenge existing habits, criticize every sign of ignorance, confusion or waste and preach incessantly the main aims of her administration" and, in his account, she managed to move Whitehall quite a distance in her direction. She did have her blind spots: upon meeting Dr. John Ashworth, her chief scientist, she asked, "Do I want one of these?" And when he pressed on about climate change at their first meeting, she stared at him in disbelief, responding, "Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?"
As Thatcher moves up in the world, so she moves out into the world. By the last third of the volume, she and we have moved away from insular town and university life, past the clubby atmosphere of Inns of Court and the House of Commons, and into the world of great powers and superpowers. The narration is now about transatlantic networking, trade policies involving the European Community, monetary coordination within the European Monetary System, U.K. elections for the European Assembly, and her agreement with President Reagan that the Soviets were "arrayed against every principle for which we stand." Moore concludes with one of the Thatcher's greatest successes: the British campaign to retake the Falkland Islands (a.k.a. Malvinas) following the 1982 invasion by Argentina. He stays away for the most part from the military campaign (though we are led to believe it was difficult because of the logistics and the initial enemy naval and air actions) and focuses instead on decision making within the "war cabinet" and transatlantic relations with the United States. It is as much a study of American decision making (Haig at State puts pressure on Thatcher, Kirkpatrick at the UN tilts toward Latin American authoritarian regimes, but Weinberger at Defense gives the U.K. crucial weaponry and intelligence), and the relationship between Thatcher and Reagan during these events is presented through a series of telephone conversations. This is a chapter that will interest anyone who closely follows Anglo- American alliance politics, though it is clearly a jingoistic version (Thatcher strong and resolute, Reagan weak and vacillating), that will warm the heart of everyone in the regiment.
Moore seems to have interviewed everyone, but often the actual value of the interview or the use of a written source lies in his own corrections: a quote attributed to Lincoln about not "strengthening the weak by weakening the strong" was actually penned by William Boetcker; "Hands are not actually kissed" when Mrs. Thatcher goes to Buckingham Palace and is received by the queen after her election victory; a quote from St. Francis of Assisi is "not, in fact by St. Francis, but by a nineteenth-century follower"; the night of the handover of power, the staff at 10 Downing and the new P.M. ate cottage pie in the State Dining Room, not the sandwiches or shepherd's pie that some remember. Yet for all the trivial corrections, Moore nevertheless always has an eye on the prize: the attempt by Mrs. Thatcher to redirect British culture away from what she saw as an excessive reliance on government, and to break the power of organized labor and rentiers over the moribund British economy. Moore is sympathetic to these (and other) goals pursued by Thatcher, but he is also a shrewd judge of character, willing to point out Thatcher's weakness as a parliamentary leader: at one point she received a memo from her advisers entitled "Your Political Survival," which went on for many pages, criticizing her style ("You lack management competence"; "You bully your weaker colleagues"; "The result is an unhappy ship"; and so on). Moore also makes clear that Thatcher's leadership in wartime (like Churchill's) did not extend to sensible ideas about strategy or tactics, but unlike her predecessor, Mrs. Thatcher usually understood the limits of her competence in military matters.
For the most part this is an admiring account of how Mrs. Thatcher became the Iron Lady through her successes when it counted. Ultimately, Thatcher's leadership boiled down to the fact that, as her chief of staff David Wolfson observed, "she was a woman of beliefs, and beliefs are better than ideas." Especially, as in Mrs. Thatcher's case, if one is imbued with the belief that one is better suited to lead than anyone else in the realm, and by dint of hard work and personality, one convinces colleagues to believe in that idea as well.
Richard Pious is Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor at Barnard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University. He is the author of The President, Congress and the Constitution (1984), The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law (2006), and Why Presidents Fail (2008).
Reviewer: Richard Pious
Read an Excerpt
The woman Prime Minister who flew into what The Times called a ‘lavish, colourful ceremony of the kind not seen in the American capital for the past four years’ had a packed schedule, but was also careful to make the right impression.* Her office set aside forty minutes each day for hairdressing (with rollers), and submitted her personal details in preparation for receiving an honorary degree at Georgetown University: ‘Height 5'4";** Weight 10.5 stone; Coat 14 English; Hat size 7’. In the White House, Reagan welcomed her, declaring, ‘we share laws and literature, blood, and moral fibre’, and she responded, ‘The message I have brought across the Atlantic is that we, in Britain, stand with you. America’s successes will be our successes. Your problems will be our problems, and when you look for friends we will be there.’ The private reception was equally warm, which encouraged Mrs Thatcher to be frank. In his diary, Reagan recorded: ‘We had a private meeting in Oval office. she [sic] is as firm as ever re the Soviets and for reduction of govt. Expressed regret that she tried to reduce govt. spending a step at a time & was defeated in each attempt. Said she should have done it our way – an entire package – all or nothing.’
But not everyone in the Reagan administration was willing to be as supportive as the President. On the same day, Don Regan testified before a Congressional committee. Mrs Thatcher, Regan said, had failed to control the money supply, produced ‘an explosive inflationary surge’ by her pay increases to public employees and kept taxes too high, which ‘provides little incentive to get the economy started again’. ‘She failed’, he added, ‘in the effort to control the foreign exchange market and the pound is so high in value that it ruined their export trade.’ Here was a clear effort to distance the administration’s policy from the perceived mistakes associated with Margaret Thatcher. Such perceptions were commonplace in US media reports throughout the visit.*** Regan then left Capitol Hill to hurry over to the British Embassy for lunch with Mrs Thatcher.
She did not react unfavourably, but publicly praised President Reagan, giving a sanitized version of what she had told him privately: his attack on expenditure was ‘the one thing which I could have wished that we had been even more successful at’. Reagan recorded in his diary that Mrs Thatcher ‘Went up to the hill [Capitol Hill] and was literally an advocate for our ec. program. Some of the Sen’s. tried to give her a bad time. She put them down firmly & with typical British courtesy.’
As far as issues of substance went, the visit was fairly thin. Mrs Thatcher was a little worried by the administration’s obsession with Central America, when she felt more attention should be paid to the East-West relationship. She and Reagan did, however, discuss the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev’s speech of 23 February in which he had called for an international summit and a moratorium on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) in Europe, and they agreed on a cautious response. More important, for both sides, was the need for éclat, for the dramatization of the ‘meeting of minds’ of which Dick Allen had written. The state dinner for Mrs Thatcher at the White House gave Reagan’s people the chance to show the difference their President made:
“The Reaganauts were determined to throw off the grungy, downtrodden look of the Carter Administration . . . Some of the Carter people used to walk about the White House in bare feet. As soon as Reagan came in, out went the memos banning jeans, banning sandals and requiring everyone to wear a suit. ‘Glamour’ was a word often used, and ‘class’ too. The Reagan people thus planned the Thatcher dinner as a white tie affair. It was going to be infused with Hollywood glamour and would show the world how classy the Reagan people were.”
Mrs Thatcher, however, asked the White House if the dinner could be black tie, since ‘some of her people would not have the requisite clothing’. She had another concern too: ‘she was the grocer’s daughter. She didn’t want to come over here dressed up like that. It was an impoverished time in Britain after all.’ Black tie was agreed, but the dinner was still grand enough in all conscience.
Then there was the return match. Taking advantage of the Reagan team’s inexperience, Nicko Henderson had got Dick Allen to promise that the President would come to the customary reciprocal dinner at the British Embassy the following night. This was in violation of the existing convention that only the Vice-President attended these return dinners, but the Reagan team did not know this. By the time they had realized their mistake and tried to get out of it, Henderson had sent out the invitations. Reagan came with a good grace.**** In her speech that night, Mrs Thatcher added her own passage to Henderson’s draft, words about the ‘two o’clock in the morning courage’ which leaders have to have when faced with lonely decisions. This greatly pleased Reagan, who replied that she herself had already shown such courage ‘on too many occasions to name’. ‘Truly a warm & beautiful occasion,’ Reagan wrote in his diary. The only disappointment for Mrs Thatcher was that the Reagans left without dancing to the band. After they had departed, Henderson invited her on to the floor: ‘Mrs T accepted my offer without complication or inhibition, and, once we were well launched on the floor, confessed to me that that was what she had been wanting to do all evening. She loved dancing, something, so I found out, she did extremely well.’129 She was most reluctant to go to bed, threatening a different sort of ‘two o’clock courage’ by going off to see the floodlit Washington monuments, ‘but Denis put his foot down, crying, “bed”.’ On her last night in America, after a rapturous reception for a speech in New York, Mrs Thatcher gathered with Denis, Henderson and aides in her suite in the Waldorf before taking the plane home. ‘Mrs T was still in a state of euphoria from the applause she had received which was indeed very loud and genuine and burst out: “You know we all ought to go dancing again” . . . Denis’ foot came down heavily.’
Both sides rejoiced at the visit. ‘It was a great success,’ Henderson remembered. ‘They saw completely eye to eye.’ ‘We needed a crowbar to pull them apart,’ remarked Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady. ‘I believe a real friendship exists between the P.M. her family & us,’ Reagan commented. The essence of this friendship was simple and effective. They believed the same things, and they both wanted to work actively to bring them about. ‘I have full confidence in the President,’ Mrs Thatcher scribbled at the bottom of a thank-you note to Henderson. ‘I believe he will do things he wants to do – and he won’t give up.’ They also had compatible, though utterly different, temperaments – he the relaxed, almost lazy generalist who charmed everyone with his easygoing ways, she the hyperactive, zealous, intensely knowledgeable leader, who injected energy into all her doings but also displayed what Reagan considered to be the elegance of a typical, gracious English lady. They shared a moral outlook on the world and also, in their emphasis on formality, dressing smartly and being what Americans call classy, a sort of aesthetic. The personal chemistry was undeniable. ‘He treated her in a very courteous and sort of slightly flirtatious way, to which she responded,’ recalled Robin Butler. It turned out that they would often disagree about tactics, and that his more optimistic and her less sunny view of the possibilities of a non-nuclear future would lead to problems, but their basic personal trust and sense of common purpose never failed.
Yet, for all her enthusiasm and affection for the leader of the free world, Mrs Thatcher was not blind to his limitations. Lord Carrington recalled their meeting on the first day:
“After the arrival ceremony we went into the Oval Office and I remember Reagan saying: ‘Well of course, the South Africans are whites and they fought for us during the war. The blacks are black and are Communists.’ I think even Margaret thought this was rather a simplification . . . She came out and she turned to me and, pointing at her head, she said, ‘Peter, there’s nothing there.’ That wasn’t exactly true, because there was something there and she no doubt didn’t really mean that.”
Mrs Thatcher came to realize that Reagan’s strengths and mental abilities were very different from her own, but she never lost her underlying admiration for him. To the typed letter of thanks she sent him, she added, in her own hand: ‘We shall never have a happier visit.’138 She felt she had a powerful friend. She knew that he would help in the economic and political struggles ahead. Her pleasure and gratitude were genuine.
* Mrs Thatcher’s nervousness before the ceremony is indicated by the row she began at Blair House, the official guest house where she and her party were staying. She fiercely attacked Lord Carrington for what she called ‘your policy in the Middle East’, which she considered dangerous in its attempt at a rapprochement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, adding, ‘I’ll lose my seat at Finchley.’ By his own account, her Foreign Secretary said, ‘And I’ll lose my temper,’ and went out, slamming the door (interview with Lord Carrington). Clive Whitmore hurriedly scribbled a note to Mrs Thatcher which said, ‘This place is bugged.’ She then drew a circle in the air with her finger to indicate bugging. (Interview with Sir Clive Whitmore.)
** Mrs Thatcher sometimes gave her height as 5 foot 4 inches, and sometimes as 5 foot 5 inches.
*** ‘A new verb has entered the Washington lexicon,’ declared the New York Times. ‘It is said to be possible to “Thatcherize” an economy. The verb is not precisely defined, but many see it as a bad thing to do. Since “Thatcherization” bears a conservative label, some people fear that our new conservative President will lead us down the same disagreeable path.’ (New York Times, 1 Mar. 1981.)
**** Although Henderson’s manoeuvring annoyed the sticklers for protocol, Allen and others realized that the President’s attendance at this return dinner (and others) could have its advantages. This would be one way, suggested an NSC memo, to ‘underscore the substantive importance’ Reagan placed on US relations with key allies, and signal a break with the discord in the transatlantic alliance seen in the recent past. (Rentschler to Tyson, ‘Thatcher Visit and Related Thoughts’, 26 Jan. 1981, 5. Official Working Visit of Prime Minister Thatcher of United Kingdom 02/26/1981 (1 of 8), Box 4, Charles Tyson Files, Reagan Library.)